Duck Tales

In 1969 I enlisted in the Navy. After a year of training in Florida, I found myself fighting boredom on the beaches of Scotland at a communications station up beyond Edinburgh. It was about as isolated a duty station as one could get.

There was a 10-mile stretch of farm ground between the Grampian Mountains and the cold North Sea, and it was a hard 30 miles north or south to a town of any size. One day I heard the familiar sound of a table saw. I had been building stuff since I could pick up a hammer and soon ingratiated myself into the base’s repair shop. I built a desk and shelves for my barracks room using the shop after hours. It felt good to be working wood again.

I still had a lot of time on my hands, but I couldn’t figure out what to build next — my room was already overstuffed. I started thinking about small stuff. I’d always admired the bird carvings I’d seen, so I decided to carve some decoys.

The sole book on wood carving in the base’s library was insistent that you carve from real life, and this was a dilemma. Although Scotland was a naturalists’ paradise I didn’t know jack about birds. How was I going to get a duck to sit still and model for me?

Now this was before the lottery system determined your likelihood of serving in the military, so the underclass of the military was filled with the odd flotsam of perfectly patriotic Americans who were dubious about Vietnam. In the Navy, only those with degrees in math, physics or some other hard science were eligible for officer school, so the enlisted ranks of the Navy were swollen with English and theater majors; and occasionally, an obscure specialty cropped up, too. Like John Trapp, who showed up as my roommate with a master’s degree in ornithology. “My duck dilemma is over,” I thought.

John was, without a doubt, the most unusual person I’d ever met. At that time beards were allowed in the Navy, and John had the most exuberant beard I’d ever seen — one that would have given those guys from the music group Alabama a run for their money. Now if most of us swabbies were a bit bored with the bucolic life, John was in paradise. Although he performed his military duties with perfunctory ease, he did his serious work after hours, and that work was birds. He researched habitat, reproduction, migratory patterns and published in magazines suck as Jackpine Warbler, Birder’s World and other oddball publications. But it was during a spate of Shellduck deaths that I really began to value John’s specialty.

I was still kicking around carving decoys when John brought a bag of dead ducks from one of his sojourns to the seaside. “I’m going to do autopsies after the eve watch tonight,” he said. Well that was fine with me because suddenly I had the models I’d been needing to carve from. We had a little refrigerator in our room, and John stuffed the ducks in among the cans of Coke and bologna. (John was pretty cavalier about sanitary stuff.)

We were ready to begin an eve watch at 4 p.m. when our door burst open and the call, “Attention on deck” rang out.

One of the unpleasantries of military life were unexpected inspections. We were to keep the rooms spotless, and we ourselves were always supposed to be ready for inspection, too. Of course, we stood rigidly at attention while these two spit-and-polish sorts counted our dust bunnies and frowned at John’s beard.

Even though it was just 3:30, we were so far north that the sun was setting, and the room was bathed in a warm golden light. The two Napoleons were almost done when one pointed to the refrigerator. They both bent over to open the small door. And when Tweedledum opened it, masses of dead ducks poured out onto the floor and onto Tweedledee’s brightly shined shoe. Not a word was said by either one, but their eyes locked. To this day, I don’t know what passed between them, but they left in a hurry with the ducks still lying on the deck.

Our inspection passed into the base’s collection of folklore. Later I heard new guys tell grossly exaggerated renditions of the tale. And despite almost continuous unannounced inspections all around us, John and I were never inspected again. And that’s how an interest in wood carving got me through the Navy. PW

Andrew Schultz is a woodworking author.